Friday, 18 February 2011

This is more like localism: a thousand flowers I’m not really interested in service-oriented models of localism. A resident’s view of being local tends to look different to that of a service provider. It's curious for example how policy has appropriated the word 'neighbourhood' in the last five years or so, to refer to a locality with typically a population of several thousand inhabitants. Now suddenly there are programmes of linked officially-approved local initiatives working on an area basis around the country. The Big Local Trust is helping to get things going in an initial tranche of 50 areas. Today NESTA announced sixteen local projects as part of the 'Neighbourhood Challenge' (Yes I know, the language. I expressed some doubts about the attitudes back in October). And in the next few days we should learn a little about how the government’s ‘community organisers’ scheme is to work (previously 5,000 of them: now, er, 500. Well done Dave, what’s a dropped zero here and there?) (Whether such a scheme is needed is another matter of course). It’s reassuring to think that these projects, legitimated by policy, will bring momentum to the age-old task of articulating localism from a local resident’s perspective. If we ask what’s new here, I think it’s that ‘bottom-up rhetoric’ – the language of local people taking action over local issues – is legitimated. In this sense some of our leaders are right: the shadow of government has dominated the local ecology and stifled growth. Now we all have permission to have conversations in policy contexts that acknowledge, even celebrate, the validity of the most local approach. As if no-one had been trying to have such conversations ever before. Now it’s fashionable. Of course, some agencies will continue to try to discredit those voices, out of habit, misunderstanding and addiction to power, but they already sound out of touch. So what about those localities where people haven’t had a sniff of these funding awards, and where residents haven’t had encouragement from their local authority to test empowerment, or haven’t managed to galvanise enough interest among others around them? What about those places where community groups may not have the resources to access and absorb the lessons from the fortunate funded few? There will as usual be inflated expectations about how the lessons from these large-scale programmes will be transferred. By all means the experience should be bottled, and disseminated in accessible form. But let’s not adopt a template mentality which implies that success is so readily replicable. In my experience, the awkward obstacles to community development are usually relationship problems, not about the mechanics of how you do this or that. Which is why the present culture change is so important. Worthy ambitions to transfer lessons and clone processes from one locality to another won’t be fulfilled. Community development is not carpentry; it's more like nurturing an ecology. Sometimes you need to leave things alone, sometimes you need to root things out or cut them back. And now that it's legitimate to challenge the dismissive dominant...

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